Happy Halloween! Some Ghostly Words

Gustave Moreau: The Apparition

Gustave Moreau: The Apparition, by deflam

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by deflam]

Boo! Did we scare you? No? Maybe these 10 ghostly words will give you the screaming abdabs instead.


“Harlin relies on cheap ‘Boo!’ scares more often than any film needs, which was never the point of this franchise, but merely what other filmmakers (or producers) have reduced it to.”

Brian Orndorf, “Review: Exorcist: The Beginning,” Film Fodder, August 21, 2004

In addition to “a loud exclamation intended to scare someone,” boo also means “a sound uttered to show contempt, scorn, or disapproval.” Douglas Harper, the founder of the Online Etymology Dictionary, says:

Common people had few opportunities to gather in a mass and express disapproval through much of Western history, but when they did, loud, insulting barnyard noises tended to be their weapon of choice. . . .These included hissing, like a goose, or booing, like a cow.

Boo is also slang for “a close acquaintance or significant other,” perhaps as an alteration of beau.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, boo as a scary exclamation seems to have originated in the early 18th century as a “word used in the North of Scotland to frighten crying Children.” To say boo to a goose means “to speak up, to stand up for oneself.” For how to say boo in other languages, check out this post from the Virtual Linguist.


“On the stairs certain bloodstains are pointed out, said to be those of a lady who was killed in the glen below, and who was afterwards known as the ‘Mortham dobby.'”

John Murray, Richard John King, Handbook for Yorkshire

A dobby, in addition to being a well-known house-elf, is “a sprite or apparition.” Also spelled dobbie, the word seems to derive from the common name Robert, and in Sussex is known as Master Dobbs.


“The ‘fetch‘ is supposed to appear when the person whose ‘counterfeit presentment’ it is happens to be at the point of death.”

‘Fetch,’ Its Derivation and Use,” The New York Times, December 24, 1899

A fetch is “ a ghost, an apparition; a doppelgänger.” While the origin of fetch is largely unknown, it seems to come from Ireland, according to the OED.

Fetch may be short for the earlier fetch-life, “a messenger sent to ‘fetch’ the soul of a dying person,” where fetch means “to go and bring.” This sense of fetch comes from the Old English feccan, “apparently a variant of fetian, fatian ‘to fetch, bring near, obtain; induce; to marry.’”


“’It is a dead thing!’ said Glaucus.
‘Nay – it stirs – it is a ghost or larva,’ faltered lone, as she clung to the Athenian’s breast.”

Edward Bulwer Lytton, The Last Days of Pompeii

While most of us know larva as “the newly hatched, wingless, often wormlike form of many insects before metamorphosis,” it’s also, in Roman mythology, “a malevolent spirit of the dead.”

The word comes from the Latin lārva, “specter, mask,” with the idea that the wormlike form “acts as a specter of or a mask for the adult form.”


“This psychological phenomenon is called pareidolia. It is when random images or sound are perceived as something non-random. This is always a danger in paranormal research, for instance when people believe they see a face in the static of a video.”

Alejandro Rojas, “Recording Ghost Voices: The Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP) ,” The Huffington Post, October 23, 2011

Pareidolia is “a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant.” The word comes from the Greek para, “alongside, beyond,” and eidolon, “mental image, apparition, phantom.”


“‘In half an hour we were all sitting about the table in a dim light, while the sweet-voiced mother was talking with ‘Charley,’ her ‘poltergeist‘–’

‘What is that, please?’ asked Mrs. Quigg.

‘The word means a rollicking spirit who throws things about.’”

Hamlin Garland, The Shadow World

A poltergeist is “a ghost or spirit that indicates its presence by the sound of moving objects, knocks, and similar noises.” The word is German in origin, coming from poltern, “to make noises,” plus Geist, “ghost.”

Apport is “the supposed paranormal transference of an object from one place to another, or the appearance of an object from an unknown source, often associated with poltergeist activity and séances.”


“While looking on this side and that side, striving to pierce their mysteries, taking a step this way and a step that, and trembling all the while lest she should see the revenant, said to haunt the place, a dreadful sound like the huge fluttering of large wings arose above in the arches.”

Mrs. Henry Wood, Charles William Wood, The Argosy

A revenant is “one who returns; especially, one who returns after a long period of absence or after death; a ghost; a specter.” The word comes from the French revenir, “to return.”


‘”It made a lot of people come to see me,’ the youngster told county police yesterday between sobs as she admitted the spook that haunted the Henry Thacker family was her own creation.”

Girl Admits Spook Hoax,” Reading Eagle, January 4, 1952

Spook may come from the Dutch spooc, “ghost.” According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “the derogatory racial sense of ‘black person’ is attested from 1940s, perhaps from notion of dark skin being difficult to see at night.” Spook as slang for “secret agent, spy” is from 1942, perhaps from the idea of being hidden. Spooky, frightening, is from 1854, while the “easily frightened” sense is from 1926.


“As the Taisch murmurs the prophecy of death in the voice of one about to die, so does the Wraith, Swarth, or Death-fetch, appear in the likeness of the person so early doomed to some living friend of the party; or as in some rare instances, even to the individuals themselves.”

Walter Cooper Dendy, On the Phenomena of Dreams, and Other Transient Illusions

A taisch refers to “the voice of one who is about to die heard by a person at a distance,” as well the “second sight.” According to the OED, the word comes from the Middle Irish tadhbais, “phantasm.”


“Banquo’s wraith, which is invisible to all but Macbeth, is the haunting of an evil conscience.”

Henry A. Beers, Chaucer to Tennyson

A wraith is “an apparition in the exact likeness of a person, supposed to be seen before or soon after the person’s death; in general, a visible spirit; a specter; a ghost.” The word is Scottish in origin, and may come from either the Old Norse vorðr, “guardian,” or the Gaelic arrach, “specter, apparition.”

Want more? Check out our posts on fear words, devil names, devil words and facts, vampire vords and accents, and words and phrases related to zombies and werewolves.

Happy Halloween! Our Favorite Fear Words

spider row

If you’re like us, you like being scared this time of year, whether it’s from hearing spooky stories, watching the creepiest movies ever, or visiting “haunted” houses. However you like to get your jim-jams, there are many different ways to express your fear.

You might say you have the willies, “a feeling of nervousness or fear.” According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, willies may come from woollies, “a dialectal term for ‘nervous uneasiness,’ probably in reference to the itchiness of wool garments.” Or you might have the heebie-jeebies, which was coined by “William De Beck (1890-1942), American cartoonist, in his comic strip Barney Google.” Then again, you could have the creeps, the all-overs, or the collywobbles, which also refers to a stomachache. Collywobbles is attested to 1823 and is a “fanciful formation from colic and wobble.”

Or maybe your fears are of the screaming variety, whether abdabs or meemies. The origin of the term screaming abdabs is obscure. World Wide Words suggests, by way of slang-master Jonathon Green, that “the word could imitate the stuttering noise that somebody might produce when in a state of funk or incoherent frustration.” It could also be related to the term abba-dabba, which refers to “persons of such limited capacities that they are unable to properly form words.” Another origin may be “an old ragtime song called Abba Dabba Honeymoon.”

The origin of screaming meemies is a bit clearer. The Online Etymology Dictionary says it’s “World War I army slang, originally a soldiers’ name for a type of German artillery shell that made a loud noise in flight (from French woman’s name Mimi), extended to the battle fatigue caused by long exposure to enemy fire.” And in case you were wondering, the word scream may be related to the Old Norse skræma, “to terrify, scare.”

Scary stuff may give you gooseflesh, “a rough condition of the skin, resembling that of a plucked goose, caused by the contraction of the erector muscles of the superficial hairs (arrectores pilorum), and induced by cold, fear, and other exciting causes,” also know as goose pimples, goose bumps, and more formally, horripilation.

Horripilation comes from the Latin horripilāre, “to bristle with hairs.” Horripilāre is made up of horrēre, “to tremble,” plus pilāre, “to grow hair,” which comes from pilus, “hair.”  Horrēre also gives as horror, which once also meant “a bristling or ruffling, as of the surface of water; a rippling,” and “a shivering or shuddering, as in the cold fit which precedes a fever,” in addition to its more common meaning, “a painful emotion of fear or abhorrence; a shuddering with terror or loathing; the feeling inspired by something frightful or shocking.”

Have nightmares? Then you’re hag-ridden, also an old term for sleep paralysis, with “the sensation of being held immobile in bed, often by a heavy weight, and accompanied by a sense of alien presence.” This is based on folklore that while you’re sleeping, you may be visited by a night-hag that will sit on your chest and immobilize you. The succubus is “a lascivious spirit supposed to have sexual intercourse with the men by night.” The incubus is the male version of the succubus, and also means “nightmare” and figuratively, “a heavy or oppressive burden; especially, a heavy weight on the mind.” While succubus comes from the Latin succubāre, “to lie under,” incubus comes from the Latin incubāre, “to lie down on.”

Ephialtes, a Greek god sometimes considered the “daimon of nightmares,” may come from the Greek ephallesthai, “to leap upon.” The mara is “a female demon who torments people in sleep by crouching on their chests or stomachs, or by causing terrifying visions,” and is related to the mare of nightmare. Nightmare originally meant “”an evil female spirit afflicting sleepers with a feeling of suffocation.” Mare comes from the Old English mare, “incubus.”

Still haven’t had enough? Check out this creepy crawly list, this scary one, and this one about sleeping – or not sleeping. The Virtual Linguist explains the origins behind the word Halloween and its traditions; Lynneguist discusses the American and British differences between some autumnal holidays; and Fritinancy rounds up some spooky foods and drinks. Finally, in case you missed any of our other Halloween posts, here they are.

From everyone at Wordnik, BOO!

Speaking of the Devil, Part 2


Yesterday we told you about six names for the devil. Today we’ll give you six words you may not are devil-related and six devlish fun facts. Let the devilry begin!

6 Words You May Not Know Are Related to the Devil


Brouhaha is French in origin and imitative of “a stir, a fuss, an uproar.” It was also “in medieval theater, ‘the cry of the devil disguised as clergy.’” Sesquiotica adds that brouhaha was “a stereotypical laugh of the devil in medieval French religious plays,” and illustrates:

Think of bwa-ha-ha and mmuuu-ha-ha and similar: always the same gesture of the mouth opening in a moue and spreading like a shock wave from an airburst into a big, wide forest-burning face of laughter, and not laughter of joy but laughter of evil.


Bogus, “counterfeit; spurious; sham,” originally referred to “an apparatus for coining counterfeit money.” The trusty Online Etymology Dictionary tells us some trace bogus to “tantrabobus, a late 18c. colloquial Vermont word for any odd-looking object, which may be connected to tantarabobs, recorded as a Devonshire name for the devil.” Others trace bogus to bogey, “an evil or mischievous spirit; a hobgoblin.”


Ragamuffin nowadays refers to “a dirty, shabbily-clothed child; an urchin.” But originally it was the name given to a demon in a play, as “ragged was used of the devil from c.1300 in reference to ‘shaggy’ appearance.”


We know that a felon is a criminal, specifically “a person who has committed a felony,” but it also once meant “a wicked person; a cruel, fierce person; one guilty of heinous crimes.” The word comes from the Old French felon “evil-doer, scoundrel, traitor, rebel, the Devil.”


A flibbertigibbet is “a flighty person; someone regarded as silly, irresponsible, or scatterbrained, especially someone who chatters or gossips.” Pretty harmless, right? But back in the 1600s, a flibbertigibbet referred to “the name of a devil,” and is described in King Lear as a “foul fiend.”


A scapegoat is “one who is made to bear the blame of the misdeeds of others,” and “in the ancient Jewish ritual, a goat on which the chief priest, on the day of atonement, symbolically laid the sins of the people,” after which “the goat was then driven into the wilderness.” Scapegoat comes from the Latin caper emissarius, which is translated from the Hebrew ‘azazel, which is read as ‘ez ozel, “goat that departs.” Azazel has been misinterpreted by some to refer to the Devil in Jewish theology, or “the evil spirit in the wilderness to whom a scapegoat was sent on the Day of Atonement.”

6 Devilish Facts

Japanese was once known as the “devil’s language.” Apparently, “in the 16th century, St. Francis Xavier reported to Rome that the Japanese language had been devised by the Devil to prevent the spread of Christianity in Japan.” The language is still jokingly referred to as such today by those who consider the language especially difficult to learn.

You may know a devil dog as the snack food, but did you know it’s also a nickname for a U.S. marine? The term was supposedly coined by German soldiers during World War I who thought that American marines “fought with such ferocity that they were likened to ‘Dogs from Hell.’” However, this is questionable since the originating German phrase, Teufelshunden, is grammatically incorrect, and may be Denglisch, “German containing English vocabulary or terms modified from English.”

A devil’s-tattoo isn’t one of these things. It’s “drumming the fingers on any resonant surface, or tapping the floor with one’s feet, acts of vacancy or impatience.”

Those devil horns heavy metal fans make is called a maloik. The word comes from the Italian malocchio, “the evil eye, a look from an individual which superstitious peoples in many cultures down the ages have believed could cause injury or bad luck for the person whom it’s directed at.” World Wide Words goes on to say that “among Italian-Americans, the gesture guards against the evil eye,” while “elsewhere it can have other meanings, including the deeply offensive one of suggesting that a man is a cuckold,” and is also known as cornuto.

A printer’s devil isn’t a typo but “an apprentice in a printing establishment.” The term originates from “the apprentice becoming black from the ink.”

However, writers can blame their mistakes on Titivillus, the “patron demon of scribes.” Titivillus is said to “work on behalf of Belphegor, Lucifer or Satan to introduce errors into the work of scribes.” This glitch-happy hobgoblin “has also been described as collecting idle chat that occurs during church service, and mispronounced, mumbled or skipped words of the service, to take to Hell to be counted against the offenders.” From Titivillus we may get tilly-vally, an archaic intervention that means nonsense! or bosh!

That’s all the devil made us do. Next week, Halloween and magic!

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by Rudolf Ammann]

Speaking of the Devil, Part 1

Cute Lil Devil

No Halloween series would be complete without a gander at the Prince of Darkness himself.

There is much to learn about the the Evil One. First, he has many names. The Century Dictionary definition alone has 11, including the prince of the powers of the air, Belial, the tempter, and the old serpent. Also, there are many words you might not know are related to devil. For instance, fiddlesticks sounds like something your grandmother would say, but did you know the Devil rode around on one, at least according to Shakespeare?

Finally, there’s devilish trivia up the wazoo. A baker’s dozen, a group of 13 (“from the former custom among bakers of adding an extra roll as a safeguard against the possibility of 12 weighing light”), is also known as a devil’s dozen, from the idea that 13 is the proper number of witches for the gathering of a Sabbath.

For the next couple of days, we’ll take a look at six names of the devil, six words you may not know are related to the devil, and finally six fun devilish facts. Six, six, and six – everyone comfortable with that?

Today, let’s explore 6 Devil Names.


The devil is perhaps best known as Satan, the “proper name of the supreme evil spirit in Christianity.” The word comes from the Greek Satanas, which comes from the Hebrew satan, “adversary, one who plots against another.” According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “in biblical sources the Hebrew term the satan describes an adversarial role,” and “is not the name of a particular character.”

Some of us may not be able to think of Satan without also thinking of a certain special Saturday Night Live character. Then there’s the sugar-coated satan sandwich, Satanic fast food, and the devil-red drink, Satan’s whiskers.


Beelzebub was “a god of the Philistines”, who had a famous temple at Ekron, and “was worshiped as the destroyer of flies.” The word Beelzebub comes from the Greek beelzeboub, which comes from the Hebrew ba’al-z’bub, “lord of the flies.”

DORÉ, Gustave Illustration for John Milton's Paradise Lost 1866

DORÉ, Gustave Illustration for John Milton’s Paradise Lost 1866 by carulmare, on Flickr

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by carulmare.]

Beelzebub is the name of “one of the fallen angels” in John Milton’s epic 17th century poem, Paradise Lost, and “was next to Satan in power.” The “lord of the flies” in William Golding’s novel refers to Beelzebub personified in the staked pig’s head.


Lucifer originally didn’t refer to the Evil One but was “the morning star; the planet Venus when she appears in the morning before sunrise.” The Biblical verse, “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!” was interpreted as “a reference to ‘Satan,’ because of the mention of a fall from Heaven, even though it is literally a reference to the King of Babylon.”

The word Lucifer is Latin in origin and means literally, “light-bringing,” with lux meaning “light,” and ferre meaning “carry.”


Clootie comes from the Scottish cloot, ‘“a cloven hoof,” which the devil is said to have, as mentioned in works by Shakespeare and Sir Thomas Browns. Clootie also refers to “a piece of rag,” as well as the clootie dumpling, “a traditional dessert pudding. . .made with flour, breadcrumbs, dried fruit (sultanas and currants), suet, sugar and spice with some milk to bind it, and sometimes golden syrup.”

Davy Jones

Davy Jones is said to be “the spirit of the sea; a sea-devil.” As we wrote in our pirate words post, the origin of Davy Jones is obscure. It may refer to David Jones, an actual pirate in the 1630s, or it may be an alteration of duppy, a West Indian term for a ghost or spirit. Or the word could refer to Jonah, “in the Bible, a prophet who was swallowed by a great fish and disgorged unharmed three days later,” and also “a person on shipboard regarded as the cause of ill luck.”

Old X

We’re cheating a little here and grouping a slew of Old X names, as does the Virtual Linguist in her post about the devil’s nicknames. There’s Old Nick, whose origin is obscure. The Oxford University Press blog says it may come nicker, “water sprite.” Grammarphobia says a possible origin is the first name of Niccolò Machiavelli, or it may be a shortened form of iniquity. What we might get from Old Nick is nickel, short for the German Kupfernickel, with Kupfer meaning “copper,”  and Nickel meaning “demon, rascal, from the deceptive copper color of the ore.”

Old Scratch is probably an alteration of  the Middle English scrat, “hermaphrodite goblin,” which comes from the Old Norse skratte, “wizard, goblin.” Old Harry seems to be a corruption of the Danish Old Erik or Old Erick, with Erik coming from Henrik. Old Erik refers to the “ninth century Erik, one of the oldest kings of the Scandinavian peoples.” When this king Erik became deified, a temple “erected to his honor and sacrifices offered to him,” Christians pronounced him an antichrist (which by the way doesn’t mean devil but someone instead of Christ). But that didn’t stop Old Erik – and therefore Old Henrik, and therefore Old Harry – from becoming a devilish synonym.

For even more devil names check out this list.

Tomorrow, devilish words and fun facts!

Vampire Vords (And Accents)

animated bela

What comes to mind when you imagine a vampire accent (as we’re sure you often do)? Bela Lugosi perhaps, or Count von Count. We’ve found that the ways to “speak vampire” are about as varied as the ways to say the word.

Vampire has Slavic origins, and may come from the Kazan Tatar ubyr, “witch.” The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first appearance of the word in English in 1734, while there have been “scattered English accounts of night-walking, blood-gorged, plague-spreading undead corpses from as far back as 1196.”

Non-English accounts are even older. From Greek mythology we have lamia, “an enticing witch who charmed children and youths for the purpose of feeding on their blood and flesh.” The word probably comes from lemures, “the spirits of the departed considered as evil-disposed specters or ghosts.” Lemures also gives us lemur, named for its eerie appearance and nocturnal habits.

Also from Greek folklore we get vrykolakas, “generally equated with the vampire of the folklore of the neighbouring Slavic countries.” The word is derived from the Bulgarian word vǎrkolak, which is derived from another term that means werewolf. The dhampir is “a half-human half-vampire mythical hybrid creature” in Balkan folklore, and comes from the Arabian dham, “teeth,” and pire, “to drink.” In gypsy or Roma folklore is the mulo, literally “one who is dead.”

The soucouyant is “a night witch who sucks people’s blood, sheds her skin, and can turn herself into a ball of fire and fly,” and comes from West Indies Creole. In Caribbean folklore, the soucouyant is known as the loogaroo, which possibly comes from loup-garou, which you may remember from our werewolf post.

Now how about that vampire accent? The titular vampire in Bram Stoker’s quintessential bloodsucker novel lives in the “the Carpathian Mountains on the border of Transylvania, Bukovina and Moldavia,” basically in and around Romania. Aruguably the most famous film adaptation of the book is Dracula with Bela Lugosi. (The unofficial first film adaption of the book, Noseferatu, is silent, so we don’t get to hear Max Schreck’s vampire accent, or how he managed to speak around those pointy teeth.) Lugosi was Hungarian, not Romanian, and it’s Lugosi’s accent the vampire accent trope is based on.

The accents of film vampires after Lugosi are varied. In the Son of Dracula, Lon Chaney, Jr. sticks with his American accent (and morphs into an incredibly slow-moving bat). Christopher Lee keeps his British accent, much to the consternation of the video’s commenters.

In the blaxploitation film Blacula, William Marshall, an American actor “trained in Grand Opera, Broadway and Shakespeare,” sounds rather Shakespearean as the African prince-turned-human leech.

New Jersey born and bred Frank Langella has a vaguely European accent in his Dracula rendition.

Count von Count of Sesame Street is modeled after Bela Lugosi’s Dracula (“Ah! Ah! Ah!“) and like many vampires has a bad case of arithmomania (this is based on the superstition that fishing nets and poppy seeds can keep vampires away because the vampires would be compelled to count the knots in the nets and the individual seeds).

In the vampire comedy, Love at First Bite, George Hamilton also seems to imitate Bela Lugosi and, even more disturbingly, discos.

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version of Stoker’s novel stays true to form with a Hungarian accent from Gary Oldman (and a couple of bad British accents, courtesy of Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves).

In Interview with the Vampire, Brad Pitt and Kirsten Dunst play American vampires so they speak with American accents while Tom Cruise speaks with a Tom Cruise-accent.

In the television show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, vampires don’t have any particular accent, or rather they have the regional accents of wherever they’re from (Drusilla’s is Cockney, Spike’s is north London, while Angel‘s was Irish). The real interest is around the inventive slang of the Scooby gang.

Michael Adams (who teaches a course simply and awesomely titled, “Vampires”) has written extensively on “slayer slang” for VERBATIM magazine and in his subsequent book, Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon (both edited by Wordnik’s own Erin McKean), for example, X-free (“I’m destiny-free”), proper names as verb (“I cannot believe that you of all people are trying Scully me”), and adding the suffix -age to traditionally non-age words (saveage, sliceage, slayage). For even more on slayer slang, check out these posts from Language Hat (“Much?”) and Language Log (“X much”).

As for True Blood, some would argue the only accents are badly executed Southern.

For even more things vampire, check out Word Spy’s entries on vampire state, vampire time, and Twilight mom; go to Fritinancy’s blog and have some vampire wine; or get your degree from Transylvania University.

Next week, the devil made us do it.

Zombie Words Attack!

Continuing our month-long Halloween theme (last week we posted about werewolf words) this week we take a word walk with the undead: zombies.

The word zombie originally referred to “a snake god or fetish in religions of West Africa and elsewhere,” and later came to mean “a person, usually undead, animated by unnatural forces (such as magic), with no soul or will of his/her own.” Its origins are either African – from the Kikongo zumbi, meaning “fetish,” or the Mbundu nzambi, meaning “god” – or, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it may come from a “Louisiana creole word meaning “phantom, ghost,’” which stems from the Spanish sombra, “shade, ghost.” Sombra also gives us somber and sombrero.

There are a number of different ways to refer to the living corpse. One is undead, an old word attested to the 1400s. (Bram Stoker apparently had considered naming his most famous novel The Un-Dead.) Other words include lich, a “southern dialectal survival” of the Old English lic, “body, dead body, corpse,” and revenant, a more general term for “one who returns; especially, one who returns after a long period of absence or after death; a ghost; a specter,” or a zombie. Revenant comes from the French revenir, “to return,” and is related to revenue.

The draugr is “an undead creature from Norse mythology,” and possesses superhuman strength, the ability to increase its size at will, and the “unmistakable stench of decay.” Other “zombienyms” include the living dead, as popularized by the iconic horror flick, Night of the Living Dead, and the walking dead, perhaps made popular by the television show, and the graphic novel series the show is based on.


Zombie! by danhollisterduck, on Flickr

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by danhollisterduck]

The Walking Dead is an example of the zombie apocalypse genre, in which “a widespread rise of zombies hostile to human life engages in a general assault on civilization,” and is often caused by a plague or pandemic. Other examples include The Living Dead series, 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, I Am Legend, and many more.

Think a zombie apocalypse could never happen? Think again. Cracked gives five scientific reasons why a zombie apocalypse is possible, such as the existence of brain parasites; a real life “rage virus,” also known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or mad cow disease; and neurogenesis. Better be prepared and study your CDC zombie apocalypse preparedness guide (that’s right, I said: C – D – C). If you want to make peace with the zombies, you’ll want to check out How to Speak Zombie: A Guide for the Living, the Zombie Lexicon, or this primer on zombie in American Sign Language for the zombie-hearing impaired.

To calm down from zombie attacks, have a zombie cocktail, made of “rum and fruit juices.” But don’t have too many for you may want to attend a zombie walk, “an organized public gathering of people who dress up in zombie costumes,” one of which occurred last week during Occupy Wall Street, a protest against “financial greed and corruption,” including perhaps zombie banks, banks that are insolvent but propped up by government intervention. For more on zombie banks, read William Safire’s 2009 piece in The New York Times.

Fremont Zombie Walk 2007

Fremont Zombie Walk 2007 by KellBailey, on Flickr

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by KellBailey]

Beware the zombie lie, which according to Word Spy is “a false statement that keeps getting repeated no matter how often it has been refuted,” as well as the zombie computer, “a computer containing a hidden software program that enables the machine to be controlled remotely, usually to perform an attack on another computer,” and the zombie clause, not to be confused with the Zombie Claus, which you should probably beware of too.

In terms of grammar, you may want to ignore zombie rules, “a long list of peeves on the part of single individuals that somehow made it into grammar books and teaching materials.” The term was coined by linguist Arnold Zwicky, who writes about zombie rules here, here, and here. Mark Liberman at Language Log writes about teaching zombie rules here.

A zombie language, according to Urban Dictionary, is a constructed language made up of  dead languages, such as Latin, that have been revived by enthusiasts who might wear this T-shirt. A dead language is opposed to a living language, “which is still spoken in the contemporary period.” A dead metaphor is “a former metaphor which has in effect lost its metaphorical status and become literal,” such as world wide web and mouse.

Finally, for the best engagement photos ever, look here.

Next week we’ll be sinking our teeth into vampires, though not the sparkly kind.

Werewolf Words

Halloween is just around the corner, and you know what that means: overpriced costumes and too much candy. But let’s not forget what it also means: scary stuff! And that’s what we’ll be featuring at Wordnik all month, starting this week with a howler of a theme: werewolf words.

Werewolf comes from the Old English werewulf, with wer meaning “man,” and wulf meaning “wolf.” The Virtual Linguist has an excellent post about the two Old English words for man, were and wapman. While wapman gave us man, “the only vestige of [were] in modern English is the word werewolf.”

Now, were is used to indicate any shapeshifting animal. There’s the weretiger, “a creature of Southeast Asian myth,” and in African myth and folklore, the werehyena. In various myths, fictions, and games, there’s the wererat, the werebear (not to be confused with these bears), the werepanther, and more.

The werewolf is also known as a wolfman and a loup-garou. Loup-garou is French in origin and translates as “wolf man-wolf,” with loup meaning “wolf,” and garou meaning “man-wolf.” The Online Etymology Dictionary explains:

The garou (O.Fr. garoul) is cognate with the garulph, gerulphos in Norman versions of the word, which breaks down to gar/war/wer “man” and ulph/wlf “wolf.” It seems to have been an attempt to wrestle O.H.G. *werawolf or its Frankish equivalent into the Gallic/Romanic sound system of the French tongue. But the French now use garou to mean any kind of were-transformation: chien-garou (changing into a dog) chat-garou, etc.

Loup-garou is a pleonasm, “a phrase in which one or more words are redundant as their meaning is expressed elsewhere in the phrase.”

The rougarou is “a variant pronunciation and spelling” of loup-garou, and “most often is described as a creature with a human body and the head of a wolf or dog.” By the way, cynocephaly is “the state of a human having the head of a dog.”


Another word for werewolf is lycanthrope, which comes from the Greek lykos, “wolf,” plus anthropos, “man.” (In the Underworld film series, Lycans are a race of humans that can transform into “bipedal, humanoid wolf-like creatures.”) Lycanthropy also refers to the delusion that one can change himself into a wolf.

Other similar delusions include zoanthropy (contains the Greek zoion, “animal”), “in which a person believes himself to be one of the lower animals”; cynanthropy (kyon, Greek for “dog”), “in which the afflicted person imagines himself to be a dog, and imitates its voice and actions”; and boanthropy, “in which the victim imagines himself to be an ox,” with boan from the Greek bos, “cow.”

Werewolf syndrome is also known as hypertrichosis, “an abnormally large development of hair either locally or generally over the body.” Hypertrichosis is made up of Greek parts: hyper means “over, beyond, overmuch, above measure”; trikhos means “hair”; and osis, “state of disease.” It differs from hirsutism, which is “excessive and increased hair growth in women in locations where the occurrence of terminal hair normally is minimal or absent.” In the 19th and early 20th centuries, sideshow performers such as Jo-Jo the Dog Faced Boy and Lionel the Lion-Faced Man were most likely afflicted by hypertrichosis.

While a full moon is supposed to be the werewolf catalyst, a silver bullet is supposed to be the only kind of weapon that can bring a werewolf down. The term now also refers to “any straightforward solution perceived to have great effectiveness or bring miraculous results.” For more on the silver bullet metaphor, check out this Language Log post from Mark Liberman, and for all things silver, look here.

Therianthrope refers to “any mythical being which is part human, part animal,” and comes from the Greek therion, “beast,” plus anthropos, “man.” Turnskin is an obsolete term meaning “someone who can change their skin at will, especially into that of a wolf,” and is a direct translation of the Latin versipellis, itself from vertere, “to turn,” and pellis, “skin.”

In Native American legends, shapeshifters are known as skinwalkers, implying walking around in someone else’s skin. In Scottish and Irish legend and folklore, the selkie is “a seal which can magically transform into a human.” The kitsune is “a Japanese fox spirit, normally female, said to have powers such as shape-shifting.” Loki is the Norse god of mischief and trickery, and was said to have shapeshifting abilities. And we can’t forget the animagus, “a wizard who elects to turn into an animal,” as opposed to a werewolf, which,  as Hermione Granger reminds us, “has no choice in the matter.”

For even more shapeshifters, check out this list, and this one for more dogs in myth. You’ll like this list for words on transformation, and this one, this one, and this one for words about the moon. Finally, Arnold Zwicky compares three diffferent translations for Der Werewolf, a German poem.

Remember, we’re all things werewolf this week at Wordnik. As for next week, we have just one word.

[Photo: German woodcut 1722, Public Domain]
[Photo: “Moonstruck,” CC BY 2.0 by mikequozl]